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Monday, December 8, 2014

Playback Effect: Karen A. Wyle's New Sci Fi Novel. Interview and Excerpt.

Author Karen A. Wyle (second from left) en famille 

Q. My own work has two main thrusts. “Bieganski” is about identity, stereotyping, atrocity, and Christian-Jewish relations. “Save Send Delete” is a memoir about love, atheism, and faith. I’m guessing that my blog readers are interested in those topics. What in “Playback Effect” might be attractive to the readers of my blogs?

This may sound self-centered, but if I followed your blog because of my interest in the topics you mention, I might be interested in Playback Effect’s author, more (initially) than in the book itself. I might be curious about a Jewish agnostic of Polish extraction, raised by a Jewish agnostic and a Jewish atheist, who had a decades-long interest in Christian apologetics and frequently conversed (in a one-sided way) with a God in Whom she didn’t much believe.

I do tend to focus on relationships, especially but not exclusively family relationships, in all my novels, whatever their nominal genre, and Playback Effect is no exception.

Q. What is it about Sci Fi as a genre that attracts you?

Science fiction is a wonderful vehicle for examining almost anything about human society and how humans tick. The futuristic setting acts as what Mary Poppins might call the “spoonful of sugar” that lets the author get to the heart of current or eternal issues without being immediately detected.

Q. Do you read Sci Fi? Who are your favorite authors? When did you first get into Sci Fi?

I’ve been reading science fiction since sometime in my teens. My favorite SF authors include “Golden Age” pioneer Robert A. Heinlein; the duo of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; Ursula K. LeGuin, when she works in her sociological SF rather than her fantasy mode; Olivia Butler; Mary Doria Russell (who wrote possibly my favorite novel of all time, The Sparrow, and its admirable sequel, Children of God, before abandoning SF for historical fiction); Elizabeth Moon; and currently best-selling author John Scalzi.

Q. Do you like classic 1950s films like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” that always seemed to be playing on TV when I was a kid, and scaring the beejammers out of me? Are you a Trekkie or a Star Wars fan?

I like, but don’t love, The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as Forbidden Planet and the original The Thing. I became a Trekkie (or Trekker -- I can never remember the difference) at about age fourteen, when the series was in reruns. Like many girls that age, I had a major crush on Mr. Spock. For years I could name every episode of the original series, and often amused myself reciting favorite lines of dialogue. I went on to watch and re-watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had significantly better (certainly more consistent) writing and acting than the original series. (Star Trek, as well as SF in general and my interest in Heinlein in particular, provided the initial common ground for my husband and me when we first met.) I also enjoyed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, although it went in a direction too mystical for my taste toward the end of the series. I never made the transition to Voyager or Enterprise.

Given my husband’s and my interest in Star Trek, we found it particularly amusing that our younger daughter was born with pointed ears. . . .

As for Star Wars, I enjoyed the first two movies (those now numbered #4 and #5), but never became a serious fan.

Q. I think of Sci Fi as more of a male genre. Does your attraction to Sci Fi say anything about your gender?

I suspect that Mr. Spock and his compelling variety of “unavailable male waiting to be transformed” brought many a girl into SF fandom. I don’t recall, however, whether I was already reading SF by the time I encountered him.

By now, there are many female SF authors as well as many female SF readers. Both -- though there are definitely exceptions -- may tend toward the “softer” (more psychological or sociological) SF as opposed to the more tech-heavy “hard” SF. I read the latter, but often skim over the technical details the way I skip the names in Russian novels (and with the same resultant confusion later on).

by Beata Izabela Miller

Q. Tell us a little bit about “Playback Effect.”

Playback Effect is a near-future science fiction thriller (at least, as close to a thriller as I’ve come so far) that also explores both a particular husband-wife relationship and the underpinnings of human relationships in general.

Here’s the teaser:

 “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” But what if it’s the other way round?

New technology records the highlights of emotional experience for others to share. Buy a helmet and you can feel the exhilaration of an Olympic ski jumper, or the heat of a lucid dreamer’s erotic imaginings. Commit a crime, and you may be sentenced to endure the suffering you inflicted on others.

But such recordings may carry more information than the public has realized. What will criminals learn about their victims? When a husband is wrongfully convicted of injuring his wife, how will their marriage change? And what uses will a sociopath find for recordings of the experience of death?

Q. How long have you been writing?

I wrote my first novel at age ten: a picaresque and bizarre first-person story of a boy and his dragon, 100 two-page chapters, handwritten in pencil and typed by my mother in an act of then-underappreciated sainthood. I attempted another about four years later, with a more realistic setting, and gave up about forty pages in. I wrote poetry in high school and college, dabbled in short stories in college, and then gave up entirely until I was pregnant with my older daughter and started writing picture book manuscripts. Fast-forward more than seventeen years, to November 2010, and that daughter took part in National Novel Writing Month (see below) in her senior year of high school. When she plunged in again the following year, I decided to give it a whirl, with no real expectation that I’d last more than a few days and a few thousand words. And the rest is (largely unheralded) publishing history. . . .

Q. What is your writing routine?

The only way I’ve written novels (not counting my childhood efforts) is via National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo or Nano. In this wonderful online activity, would-be authors all over the world (or at least in English-speaking countries -- I’m not sure about elsewhere) undertake to write a very rough draft of a novel, at least 50,000 words long, entirely within the month of November. (There are also spring and summer “Camp Nano” versions, in which the writer sets his/her own goal.) I write my rough drafts in November, usually finishing at least a couple of days ahead of time, and then put the draft aside for a few weeks. I spend many months revising, editing, and re-editing, then publish the following autumn (usually in mid-October, although competing activities this fall pushed the release date for Playback Effect into December).

During Nano, I write on and off all day (feasible because I’m self-employed with a home office), generally averaging between 1900 and 2000 or more words a day, though when I’m ahead of schedule I’ll sometimes slack off and write 1300 or fewer words.

Q. What are your most rewarding experiences as a writer?

The basic fact of having achieved a childhood ambition, long after having abandoned it, gives me a most profound and continuing satisfaction.  It’s also very gratifying to hear that a reader has found one of my stories moving and will probably remember it for some time to come.

Q. You self-publish. What are the plusses and minuses?

Soapbox Alert: I’m something of an advocate for self-publishing these days. The traditional publishing world has become increasingly tricky, even hostile, to new authors, while self-publishing carries less and less of a stigma, and there’s more and more good advice and assistance out there for those undertaking it.

To expand just a little on the first point, here are some of the unwelcome surprises awaiting authors (other than celebrities) in traditional publishing:

-- Book advances are dwindling.

-- Publishers expect authors to do most of their own book promotion, whether in-person promotion (don’t expect a publisher to send you on a book tour on their dime!) or other kinds.

-- A traditional publishing contract does not mean your book will appear in Barnes & Noble or other bricks-and-mortar bookstores. In fact, some current publishing contracts leave it entirely up to the publisher whether to publish a print edition at all. (Since print distribution to bookstores is the principal remaining area where traditional publishers have logistical advantages, this sort of contract is a particularly dubious investment.)

-- Many publishing contracts include clauses -- sometimes hidden in boilerplate -- that may give the publisher veto power over the author’s publication of not only related works (e.g. sequels or spin-offs), but any novel or story that might, in the publisher’s opinion, in any way undercut the market for the work in question.

-- Publishing contracts, including any onerous terms thereof, typically last for the entire life of the copyright -- currently, for most written work, the life of the author plus seventy years. If the publisher loses interest in the book (increasingly common as editors leave publishing houses or the house changes ownership), the author may have quite a struggle attempting to regain control of the work in order to market it him/herself.

My advice to authors intent on finding an agent and/or a traditional publishing contract: have an intellectual property attorney read that contract before you sign it! -- and don’t be afraid to walk away, in order to protect your future as an author.

The principal advantage of self-publishing is control: control of the cover, the content, the marketing, the publishing schedule (which for traditional publishing often takes eighteen months or more from submission of the text), and the formats available. The principal disadvantage -- trying to rise about the “noise” of an ever-growing number of other authors -- is not really confined to self-publishing, or that much greater for those who self-publish, absent a very few lucky authors in whom the publisher is particularly interested.

Q. Can you share an excerpt from Playback Effect with us?

But of course. :-)

 [excerpt from Chapter 2]

Hal Wakeman looked at the model on the table and grinned. He loved this idea. He had always marveled at the unexpected beauty of buildings in mid-demolition, the ever-shifting shapes as the rubble descended. But it had never occurred to him before that he could hearken back, in his art, to the days when he had destroyed—carefully, expertly, benignly — instead of created.

Would strangers, those who neither knew nor cared about his background, perceive the origin of these straight and curving lines, this towering and crumbling structure? Well, he had revealed as much in an interview or two, if anyone bothered to read them. Hal glanced at his monitor, still displaying the latest story. Of course they’d eaten up the father/son angle: the father builds skyscrapers, the son used to obliterate them. He hadn’t tried to convince them it was coincidence. (And Wynne had never accepted that it really was a coincidence. She kept hinting that he’d been trying to goad his father in some way, or even hurt him. Why did women see drama wherever they looked?)

The photographer had taken the theme and run with it: the portrait of Hal had an intense, wild-eyed look. (Maybe he’d spooked the fellow by commenting that he sometimes missed the noise: the first explosions, then the even louder second series, then the anticlimactic but sensuous hissing as the building collapsed. . . .)

If only the structure could be larger, towering over the observer, almost as a building would have done. Perhaps he could sell the committee on an expansion.

Damn! He’d lost track of the time again. If he didn’t hurry, or even if he did, he would be late meeting Wynne. She was used to it, but in the barely patient manner of long-suffering spouses.

Hal checked his pockets for keys and phone and ran out the door, thundering down the stairs rather than waiting for the elevator. Hitting the street, he raced toward the subway entrance, taking deep breaths of the crisp spring air as he ran. It had turned out a splendid day, a gift of a day. Maybe after lunch, he and Wynne would take a walk around the city. He would listen to her describing her latest dreams, and she would indulge him as he imagined how long it would take to bring this or that proud building tumbling down.

As he ran up the steps toward the subway exit, a phalanx of police—riot police or something of the sort, with shiny plastic body armor and tall transparent shields—converged on the exit. Unless he moved quickly, they would prevent his leaving. Wynne had been kept waiting long enough without that. But there could be some dangerous situation in the street, from which these officious Myrmidons genuinely sought to protect him.

As he neared the top of the stairs, one of the officers reached out an arm to block him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Well, that didn’t sound like someone especially concerned for his safety. To hell with that attitude! He ducked around the fellow and darted out into the street, ignoring the shouts behind him.

But in a moment, he skidded to a stop, mouth frozen open in a gape of disbelief.


The bomb must have been hidden inside the fountain.

The van rounded the corner, wheels screeching, throwing the rookie against the window, and he caught his first glimpse of the devastation. The bronze sculpture at the center, always abstract, had become a nightmare vision of itself, twisting off in every direction, reaching jagged claws toward the chaos around it. The debris of the fountain was littered with an incongruously colorful array of other objects—water bottles, bits of clothing, toys—that had been sucked back toward the center by the vacuum after the blast.

The van pulled up and the driver flung open the door. The rookie shrank back as the wailing and screaming hit him at full volume. A moment later came the odors: the sharp bite of explosive mingled with a stench that might be burnt hair and clothing, and a smell like roasted meat that could only be burnt flesh. And all around lay sprawled and writhing bodies, pools of blood, severed limbs.

For a moment the rookie stood paralyzed, as all around him the more experienced record techs spilled out of the van and got to work. Then, just as they had told him would happen, his training kicked in. He grabbed a case of helmets and looked around. Right away he noticed and tried to ignore the explosive ordnance disposal techs, sweeping the scene for additional bombs. They would do their job; he had his own.

Highest priority were those victims still conscious, yet grievously wounded. The most potent experiences would occur before the emergency medical personnel reached the victim, and he was not allowed to apply the helmet without an EMT or paramedic present—but if he acted quickly, he could get a helmet on before any pain medication kicked in. And the new helmets were supposed to be able to grab a few minutes’ worth of short-term memory.

 He needed someone to follow. There were dozens of EMT’s and paramedics on the scene, some doing triage, some tending to those victims already tagged as most urgently in need of help. Close to him lay a woman whose shoulder bore the painted symbol for Second Tier: seriously injured, but likely to survive a few minutes while the First Tier received stabilizing treatment. She would have been given pain medication a while ago. That would not do for his purpose. He trotted over to one of the workers. “Recording team, here and ready. I’m—.”

The woman snorted and turned away, the sound and movement eloquently conveying both anger and contempt. “Vulture squad. Just what we needed.”

“I’ll try to stay out of your way.”

“The hell you will. You’ll be grabbing at the victims over my shoulder, shoving helmets on their heads.”

He should have expected this attitude. The police were used to working with recording techs, who hung back until a path to the victim was secure and then rushed in. EMT’s most often dealt with trauma that had no human cause. Unlike the police, they did not normally view themselves as adjuncts to the criminal justice system.

The rookie’s supervisor chose that moment to appear. The rookie wasn’t sure whether to be relieved: he could use the backup, but he doubted he cut an impressive and competent figure just now.

“Any problems?”

The EMT glared at the new arrival with impressive scorn. “You know exactly what the problem is, but let’s stop wasting time.” She hurried toward a man—well, more of a boy—lying a few yards away, clutching his leg. His thigh. It wasn’t a leg any more, not all of one. The boy seemed to be in the process of regaining consciousness.

The supervisor dug his elbow into the rookie’s ribs and hissed in his ear. “Get on it! He’s about to realize what’s happened to him.”

The rookie gaped. “But when they’re conscious, we’re supposed to try to get consent first—”

“There’s no time! We’ve got to catch the moment when he knows his leg is gone! A memory won’t be as vivid—move!”

The rookie jumped, then scurried over to the boy, approaching him from the side opposite where the EMT was kneeling. He looked quickly at the helmets, grabbed one the right size, then made himself stop and breathe. It was a good thing the helmets were shaped as they were—he could apply one without taking the risk of lifting the boy’s head. As gently as he could, he seated the helmet across the boy’s forehead and hit “Record”. Then he clambered to his feet and stepped back. The EMT’s jaw dropped in shock. “What the hell are you doing?”

The boy reclaimed the EMT’s attention by moaning and muttering something the rookie couldn’t hear. Then came the moment the supervisor had anticipated. The boy struggled up onto one elbow and looked down at himself. Even from the distance to which the rookie had retreated, he could see the boy go pale. “What—did—my leg! My leg!” He turned and gripped the tech hard with one shaking hand. “Can you—is it here, can you find it, can you fix it?”

The rookie turned toward his supervisor, who was almost rubbing his hands in satisfaction. Of course, it wasn’t what it might seem to an ignorant observer. Neither of them was some kind of sadist. They were here to ensure that when the police caught the son of a bitch who had planted the bomb, the bomber could be made to live through something close to the agony he’d caused.

And knowing you’d lost a leg—that was horrible. The victim was just a kid, the age the rookie had been when he was playing high school football. And now? If he was lucky, maybe they’d be able to grow him a new leg, but legs took years, even when everything went well. The kid wouldn’t be whole until long after his football, or whatever, days were over.

Suddenly the supervisor’s expression changed. “What the—get over there and switch it off!”

The rookie’s head whipped back toward the boy. He had collapsed, and the EMT was cursing under her breath, unpacking a portable defibrillator, checking around the boy, applying the device. The rookie froze. If he followed that order, if he went anywhere near the boy, he might somehow be responsible for what was about to happen.

In a few minutes, it was over. He might not have known, even watching the boy shudder, and shudder again, and then slump in final relaxation; but the EMT’s body language told the story. The boy had died.

Had died, with the helmet on “record.”

The rookie looked back at his supervisor. The older man was shaking his head heavily from side to side. “Well, now, don’t we have the hot potato on our hands.”


At police headquarters, all was chaos. Crackling radios, phones buzzing or ringing, screens muttering on multiple channels, people constantly in and out with more and more information: the growing list of identified casualties, the status of clearing buildings which might be structurally compromised, sightings of suspicious persons, sightings of suspicious planes and spacecraft . . . .

Arthur Kellic granted himself a moment to rest his face in his hands. It was a mistake: now he could tell just how exhausted he was, how his shoulders ached from immobility and tension. And there, waiting, were the feelings he had no time for: horror, rage, grief.

What had they done to his city? Who had done it, and how would he catch them?

Arthur straightened up and looked around to see who might be awaiting his attention. His assistant Hannah hovered in the doorway; he waved her over.

“Boss, something’s come up with the vultures. They’ve picked up something they weren’t supposed to.”

Arthur frowned. “You know I don’t like that label.” The recording technicians might be a nuisance for police and medical, but Arthur thoroughly approved of the idea. What better punishment than inflicting the very same suffering that the perp had caused? Without the barbarity of an eye for an eye, the criminal could learn firsthand how it felt to be blinded.

Hannah shrugged. “Whatever. One of them recorded a death.”

Arthur whistled. “Hoo, boy. Are the press on it yet?”

“Not yet. But you know they’ll get hold of it soon enough.”

“Where’s the recording? I want it locked up tight. No one makes a copy, no one gets near it, until we have instructions.”

Hannah nodded and threaded her way back through the desks and people toward her own station. A phone buzzed while she was still en route; Arthur looked for anyone likely to answer it, shrugged, and picked it up. “Senior Detective Kellic here.”

“Sir, we’ve detained someone who tried to evade the patrol near the subway.”

“Trying to get out, or get in?”

“Out. Should we hold onto him or cut him loose?”

“Anyone we know? Does he have a sheet?”

“No, but I ran him through the database, and I came up with something. He’s some sort of artist now, but he used to bring down buildings. With explosives.”

Arthur found he was clutching the phone so hard that the edges hurt his hand. “Harold Wakeman.”

“Yeah, that’s the guy! What’s the story?”

“Just hang onto him. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Arthur hung up and put the phone down, carefully, so as not to drop it. He looked around. “Who’s got the latest casualty list? Send it to me.”

He opened the file, willing his hands not to shake, and scrolled down. The names were going by too fast; he made himself slow down. Had she been at the site?

And there it was. Status critical, traumatic amputation of one hand, extensive reconstruction necessary.


And Hal—the rival, the victor—caught in the thick of it, trying to get away from the police.

What had that bastard done?

Screenshot from "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Not related to Karen's novel; I just like this shot. 

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